Rick Norsworthy, Belfast and a hood
Tuesday 3 December 2019
In 1972, I was shipped west from London Bureau to Belfast for a few weeks to give Rick a break from months of covering The Troubles. Rick stayed on for a couple of days and took me round to meet his contacts, starting with Robby, a beefy barber whose shop was not far from Reuters base in the Royal Avenue Hotel and who was an outlet for news and views from the IRA, a sort of unofficial spokesman. The next day, a Sunday, Rick took me in a "Catholic taxi" up to Ballymurphy in IRA-land to have an Irish Sunday "tay" - actually a solid calorific feast and not just cuppa and cakes - with Robbie's family - his wife Maria and their two teenage sons. They all loved Rick, which was why they welcomed me, a Brit, too. "You're only here because Rick said you could be trusted," Robbie told me out of Rick’s hearing. "He's a lovely fella," said Maria.
We dropped in on the British Army and went to see the undeclared MI5 station chief in Belfast, who seemed to respect Rick's right to neutrality in the conflict, although he made clear he thought British national reporters like me should know where their loyalties lay.
But there was no trip to east Belfast to meet the UDA, the Protestant militants' counterpart to the IRA. "I've been going up there a lot and know a lot of people," Rick said. "But I had a bit of trouble last month so I'd better stay away for a while."
He was obviously not happy with the memory and wouldn't say much more. But I heard later what the "bit of trouble" was from another reporter who had been with Rick when they were grabbed on the Shankill Road by a squad of UDA hardmen who apparently thought they might be Catholic spies. They were hooded and hauled off to the cellar of a terrace house to be interrogated. Rick's speech problem only seemed to make them more suspicious and, in the other reporter's account, the situation was looking bad - the UDA had already carried out "executions" of people they thought were working for the IRA. The black hood and the threats could have made Rick's stammer worse than usual, "but he was amazingly calm all the time,” his companion told me. Eventually Rick convinced the gunmen to ask Tommy Heron, the local leader of the UDA who he had interviewed a couple of times, to vouch for them as journalists. A couple of hours later, an apology came from Heron with orders to the hard men to let them go and they were put in a "Protestant taxi" back to the hotel.
A few months later, Heron was himself killed in an internal UDA power struggle. ■